1. Regular Expression Tutorial
In this tutorial, I will teach you all you need to know to be able to craft powerful time-saving regular expressions. I will start with the most basic concepts, so that you can follow this tutorial even if you know nothing at all about regular expressions yet. But I will not stop there. I will also explain how a regular expression engine works on the inside, and alert you at the consequences. This will help you to understand quickly why a particular regex does not do what you initially expected. It will save you lots of guesswork and head-scratching when you need to write more complex regexes.

What Regular Expressions Are Exactly - Terminology
Basically, a regular expression is a pattern describing a certain amount of text. Their name comes from the mathematical theory on which they are based. But we will not dig into that. Since most people including myself are lazy to type, you will usually find the name abbreviated to regex or regexp. I prefer regex, because it is easy to pronounce the plural "regexes". In this book, regular expressions are printed guillemots: «regex». They clearly separate the pattern from the surrounding text and punctuation. This first example is actually a perfectly valid regex. It is the most basic pattern, simply matching the literal text „regex”. A "match" is the piece of text, or sequence of bytes or characters that pattern was found to correspond to by the regex processing software. Matches are indicated by double quotation marks, with the left one at the base of the line. «\b[A-Z0-9._%-]+@[A-Z0-9._%-]+\.[A-Z0-9._%-]{2,4}\b» is a more complex pattern. It describes a series of letters, digits, dots, percentage signs and underscores, followed by an at sign, followed by another series of letters, digits, dots, percentage signs and underscores, finally followed by a single dot and between two and four letters. In other words: this pattern describes an email address. With the above regular expression pattern, you can search through a text file to find email addresses, or verify if a given string looks like an email address. In this tutorial, I will use the term "string" to indicate the text that I am applying the regular expression to. I will indicate strings using regular double quotes. The term “string” or “character string” is used by programmers to indicate a sequence of characters. In practice, you can use regular expressions with whatever data you can access using the application or programming language you are working with.

Different Regular Expression Engines
A regular expression “engine” is a piece of software that can process regular expressions, trying to match the pattern to the given string. Usually, the engine is part of a larger application and you do not access the engine directly. Rather, the application will invoke it for you when needed, making sure the right regular expression is applied to the right file or data. As usual in the software world, different regular expression engines are not fully compatible with each other. It is not possible to describe every kind of engine and regular expression syntax (or “flavor”) in this tutorial. I will focus on the regex flavor used by Perl 5, for the simple reason that this regex flavor is the most popular

40 one, and deservedly so. Many more recent regex engines are very similar, but not identical, to the one of Perl 5. Examples are the open source PCRE engine (used in many tools and languages like PHP), the .NET regular expression library, and the regular expression package included with version 1.4 and later of the Java JDK. I will point out to you whenever differences in regex flavors are important, and which features are specific to the Perl-derivatives mentioned above.

Give Regexes a First Try
You can easily try the following yourself in a text editor that supports regular expressions, such as EditPad Pro. If you do not have such an editor, you can download the free evaluation version of EditPad Pro to try this out. EditPad Pro's regex engine is fully functional in the demo version. As a quick test, copy and paste the text of this page into EditPad Pro. Then select Edit|Search and Replace from the menu. In the search pane that appears near the bottom, type in «regex» in the box labeled “Search Text”. Mark the “Regular expression” checkbox, unmark “All open documents” and mark “Start from beginning”. Then click the Search button and see how EditPad Pro's regex engine finds the first match. When “Start from beginning” is checked, EditPad Pro uses the entire file as the string to try to match the regex to. When the regex has been matched, EditPad Pro will automatically turn off “Start from beginning”. When you click the Search button again, the remainder of the file, after the highlighted match, is used as the string. When the regex can no longer match the remaining text, you will be notified, and “Start from beginning” is automatically turned on again. Now try to search using the regex «reg(ular expressions?|ex(p|es)?)». This regex will find all names, singular and plural, I have used on this page to say “regex”. If we only had plain text search, we would have needed 5 searches. With regexes, we need just one search. Regexes save you time when using a tool like EditPad Pro. If you are a programmer, your software will run faster since even a simple regex engine applying the above regex once will outperform a state of the art plain text search algorithm searching through the data five times. Regular expressions also reduce development time. With a regex engine, it takes only one line (e.g. in Perl, PHP, Java or .NET) or a couple of lines (e.g. in C using PCRE) of code to, say, check if the user's input looks like a valid email address.


2. Literal Characters
The most basic regular expression consists of a single literal character, e.g.: «a». It will match the first occurrence of that character in the string. If the string is “Jack is a boy”, it will match the „a” after the “J”. The fact that this “a” is in the middle of the word does not matter to the regex engine. If it matters to you, you will need to tell that to the regex engine by using word boundaries. We will get to that later. This regex can match the second „a” too. It will only do so when you tell the regex engine to start searching through the string after the first match. In a text editor, you can do so by using its “Find Next” or “Search Forward” function. In a programming language, there is usually a separate function that you can call to continue searching through the string after the previous match. Similarly, the regex «cat» will match „cat” in “About cats and dogs”. This regular expression consists of a series of three literal characters. This is like saying to the regex engine: find a «c», immediately followed by an «a», immediately followed by a «t». Note that regex engines are case sensitive by default. «cat» does not match “Cat”, unless you tell the regex engine to ignore differences in case.

Special Characters
Because we want to do more than simply search for literal pieces of text, we need to reserve certain characters for special use. In the regex flavors discussed in this tutorial, there are 11 characters with special meanings: the opening square bracket «[», the backslash «\», the caret «^», the dollar sign «$», the period or dot «.», the vertical bar or pipe symbol «|», the question mark «?», the asterisk or star «*», the plus sign «+», the opening round bracket «(» and the closing round bracket «)». These special characters are often called “metacharacters”. If you want to use any of these characters as a literal in a regex, you need to escape them with a backslash. If you want to match „1+1=2”, the correct regex is «1\+1=2». Otherwise, the plus sign will have a special meaning. Note that «1+1=2», with the backslash omitted, is a valid regex. So you will not get an error message. But it will not match “1+1=2”. It would match „111=2” in “123+111=234”, due to the special meaning of the plus character. If you forget to escape a special character where its use is not allowed, such as in «+1», then you will get an error message. All other characters should not be escaped with a backslash. That is because the backslash is also a special character. The backslash in combination with a literal character can create a regex token with a special meaning. E.g. «\d» will match a single digit from 0 to 9.

Special Characters and Programming Languages
If you are a programmer, you may be surprised that characters like the single quote and double quote are not special characters. That is correct. When using a regular expression or grep tool like PowerGREP or the

42 search function of a text editor like EditPad Pro, you should not escape or repeat the quote characters like you do in a programming language. In your source code, you have to keep in mind which characters get special treatment inside strings by your programming language. That is because those characters will be processed by the compiler, before the regex library sees the string. So the regex «1\+1=2» must be written as "1\\+1=2" in C++ code. The C++ compiler will turn the escaped backslash in the source code into a single backslash in the string that is passed on to the regex library. To match „c:\temp”, you need to use the regex «c:\\temp». As a string in C++ source code, this regex becomes "c:\\\\temp". Four backslashes to match a single one indeed. See the tools and languages section in this book for more information on how to use regular expressions in various programming languages.

Non-Printable Characters
You can use special character sequences to put non-printable characters in your regular expression. «\t» will match a tab character (ASCII 0x09), «\r» a carriage return (0x0D) and «\n» a line feed (0x0A). Remember that Windows text files use “\r\n” to terminate lines, while UNIX text files use “\n”. You can include any character in your regular expression if you know its hexadecimal ASCII or ANSI code for the character set that you are working with. In the Latin-1 character set, the copyright symbol is character 0xA9. So to search for the copyright symbol, you can use «\xA9». Another way to search for a tab is to use «\x09». Note that the leading zero is required.

Arriving at the 4th character in the match. No surprise that this kind of engine is more popular. in exactly the same order. In this tutorial.”. This inside look may seem a bit long-winded at certain times. respectively. You can easily find out whether the regex flavor you intend to use has a text-directed or regex-directed engine. Only if all possibilities have been tried and found to fail. and regex-directed engines. First Look at How a Regex Engine Works Internally Knowing how the regex engineworks will enable you to craft better regexes more easily. But then. lex. The engine is "eager" to report a match. It will help you understand quickly why a particular regex does not do what you initially expected. such as lazy quantifiers and backreferences. «c» matches „c”. So the regex engine tries to match the «c» with the “e”. the engine knows the regex cannot be matched starting at the 4th character in the match. Jeffrey Friedl calls them DFA and NFA engines. after introducing a new regex token. The result is that the regex-directed engine will return the leftmost match. The engine will then try to match the second token «a» to the 5th character. But understanding how the regex engine works will enable you to use its full power and help you avoid common mistakes. For awk and egrep. it will try all possible permutations of the regex. flex. When applying «cat» to “He captured a catfish for his cat. At that point. All the regex flavors treated in this tutorial are based on regex-directed engines. I will explain step by step how the regex engine actually processes that token. . This will save you lots of guesswork and head-scratching when you need to write more complex regexes. the engine will try to match the first token in the regex «c» to the first character in the match “H”. there are a few versions of these tools that use a regex-directed engine. will the engine continue with the second character in the text.43 3. then it is text-directed. The engine never proceeds beyond this point to see if there are any “better” matches. The entire regular expression could be matched starting at character 15. You can do the test by applying the regex «regex|regex not» to the string “regex not”. «c» again matches „c”. as does matching the «c» with the space. This fails. „a”. This fails too. There are no other possible permutations of this regex. the engine is regex-directed. This is because certain very useful features. So it will continue with the 5th: “a”. If the result is „regex not”. the engine will start at the first character of the string. The engine then proceeds to attempt to match the remainder of the regex at character 15 and finds that «a» matches „a” and «t» matches „t”. Again. It will try all possible permutations of the regular expression at the first character. At the 15th character in the match. MySQL and Procmail. The first match is considered good enough. Notable tools that use text-directed engines are awk. There are two kinds of regular expression engines: text-directed engines. even if a “better” match could be found later. The reason behind this is that the regex-directed engine is “eager”. When applying a regex to a string. If the resulting match is only „regex”. can only be implemented in regex-directed engines. because it merely consists of a sequence of literal characters. If backreferences and/or lazy quantifiers are available. «t» fails to match “p”. egrep. you can be certain the engine is regex-directed. It will therefore report the first three letters of catfish as a valid match. «c» fails to match here and the engine carries on. The Regex-Directed Engine Always Returns the Leftmost Match This is a very important point to understand: a regex-directed engine will always return the leftmost match. Again. This succeeds too.

. our regex engine simply appears to work like a regular text search routine.44 In this first example of the engine's internals. But they are always logical and predetermined. In following examples. However. the way the engine works will have a profound impact on the matches it will find. it is important that you can follow the steps the engine takes in your mind. Some of the results may be surprising. once you know how the engine works. A text-directed engine would have returned the same result too.

Metacharacters Inside Character Classes Note that the only special characters or metacharacters inside a character class are the closing bracket (]). The order of the characters inside a character class does not matter. Indeed: the space will be part of the overall match. Character Classes or Character Sets With a "character class". The result is that the character class will match any character that is not in the character class. It is important to remember that a negated character class still must match a character. You can use more than one range. A character class matches only a single character. The results are identical. case insensitively. the caret (^) and the hyphen (-). but doing so significantly reduces readability. use «[+*]».45 4. It will not match the q in the string “Iraq”. in both strings. Find a C-style hexadecimal number with «0[xX][A-Fa-f0-9]+». and only the q. You could use this in «gr[ae]y» to match either „gray” or „grey”. the backslash (\). and do not need to be escaped by a backslash. To search for a star or plus. You can combine ranges and single characters. «[0-9a-fxA-FX]» matches a hexadecimal digit or the letter X. The usual metacharacters are normal characters inside a character class. Simply place the characters you want to match between square brackets. such as «sep[ae]r[ae]te» or «li[cs]en[cs]e». If you want to match an a or an e. also called “character set”. even if it is misspelled. because it is the “character that is not a u” that is matched by the negated character class in the above regexp. the order of the characters and the ranges does not matter. «[0-9]» matches a single digit between 0 and 9. It will match the q and the space after the q in “Iraq is a country”. Negated Character Classes Typing a caret after the opening square bracket will negate the character class. negated character classes also match (invisible) line break characters. Find an identifier in a programming language with «[A-Za-z_][A-Za-z_0-9]*». Again. you can tell the regex engine to match only one out of several characters. “graey” or any such thing. Useful Applications Find a word. use «[ae]». you need to use negative lookahead: «q(?!u)». You can use a hyphen inside a character class to specify a range of characters. Very useful if you do not know whether the document you are searching through is written in American or British English. «[0-9a-fA-F]» matches a single hexadecimal digit. . Unlike the dot. «gr[ae]y» will not match “graay”. «q[^u]» does not mean: “a q not followed by a u”. It means: “a q followed by a character that is not a u”. But we will get to that later. Your regex will work fine if you escape the regular metacharacters inside a character class. If you want the regex to match the q.

you have to escape it with another backslash. which characters this actually includes. since it improves readability. To include a caret. Some flavors include additional. or the negating caret. In all flavors discussed in this tutorial. In most. it will include «[A-Za-z]». Both «[-x]» and «[x-]» match an x or a hyphen. When applied to “1 + 2 = 3”. «[\da-fA-F]» matches a hexadecimal digit. rarely used non-printable characters such as vertical tab and form feed. I recommend the latter method. «\D» is the same as «[^\d]». . In most flavors. you can see the characters matched by «\w» in PowerGREP when using the Western script. «\s\d» matches a whitespace character followed by a digit. «\w» stands for “word character”. The closing bracket (]). or right after the negating caret. The best way to find out is to do a couple of tests with the regex flavor you are using. «\d» is short for «[0-9]». You can put the closing bracket right after the opening bracket. Again. «\W» is short for «[^\w]» and «\S» is the equivalent of «[^\s]». Shorthand Character Classes Since certain character classes are used often. In all flavors. word characters from other languages may also match. «\s» stands for “whitespace character”. or by placing them in a position where they do not take on their special meaning. it also includes a carriage return or a line feed as in «[ \t\r\n]». In EditPad Pro. If you are using the Cyrillic script. Exactly which characters it matches differs between regex flavors. and is equivalent to «[0-9a-fA-F]». In the screen shot. place it anywhere except right after the opening bracket. the actual character range depends on the script you have chosen in Options|Font. while the latter matches „1” (one). Russian characters will be included. the former regex will match „ 2” (space two). That is: «\s» will match a space or a tab. depends on the regex flavor. «[]x]» matches a closing bracket or an x. etc. the caret (^) and the hyphen (-) can be included by escaping them with a backslash. Shorthand character classes can be used both inside and outside the square brackets. characters with diacritics used in languages such as French and Spanish will be included. «[^]x]» matches any character that is not a closing bracket. or right before the closing bracket. it includes «[ \t]».46 To include a backslash as a character without any special meaning inside a character class. Negated Shorthand Character Classes The above three shorthands also have negated versions. If you are using the Western script. for example. the underscore and digits are also included. «[\s\d]» matches a single character that is either whitespace or a digit. «[\\x]» matches a backslash or an x. The hyphen can be included right after the opening bracket. «[x^]» matches an x or a caret. In some flavors. a series of shorthand character classes are available.

rather than the class. and not just the character that it matched. which matches the next character in the text. «[\D\S]» will match any character. will match any character that is either not a digit. When applied to the string “833337”. Again. «*» or «+» operators. it will match „3333” in the middle of this string. That is: «gr[ae]y» can match both „gray” and „grey”. and whitespace is not a digit. The former.47 Be careful when using the negated shorthands inside square brackets. however. the leftmost match was returned. But the engine simply did not get that far. I will explain how it applies a regex that has more than one permutation. «[\D\S]» is not the same as «[^\d\s]». and continue with the next character in the string. The next token in the regex is the literal «r». If you do not want that. and fail. digit. . I did not yet explain how character classes work inside the regex engine. Repeating Character Classes If you repeat a character class by using the «?». even though we put the «a» first in the character class. you will need to use backreferences. We already saw how the engine applies a regex consisting only of literal characters. but not “8”. The latter will match any character that is not a digit or whitespace. «gr[ae]y» will match „grey” in “Is his hair grey or gray?”. The regex «[0-9]+» can match „837” as well as „222”. „g” is matched. «[ae]» is attempted at the next character in the text (“e”). If you want to repeat the matched character. «([09])\1+» will match „222” but not “837”. Nothing noteworthy happens for the first twelve characters in the string. because that is the leftmost match. So the third token. Because a digit is not whitespace. The engine will then try to match the remainder of the regex with the text. The engine will fail to match «g» at every step. So it will match „x”. Below. The last regex token is «y». But because we are using a regex-directed engine. and find that «e» matches „e”. Let us take a look at that first. you need to use lookahead and lookbehind. Looking Inside The Regex Engine As I already said: the order of the characters inside a character class does not matter. It will first attempt to match «a». It will return „grey” as the match result. you will repeat the entire character class. The engine has found a complete match with the text starting at character 13. and „gray” could have been matched in the string. which can be matched with the following character as well. But I digress. it must continue trying to match all the other permutations of the regex pattern before deciding that the regex cannot be matched with the text starting at character 13. When the engine arrives at the 13th character. or is not whitespace. The character class gives the engine two options: match «a» or match «e». So it will continue with the other option. whitespace or otherwise. because another equally valid match was found to the left of it. and look no further.

Unfortunately.\d\d.Match(“string”. In Perl. EditPad Pro and PowerGREP.]\d\d» is a better solution. Obviously not what we intended. If you are new to regular expressions. without caring what that character is. The effect is that with these tools. In RegexBuddy.. This is a bit unfortunate. Other languages and regex libraries have adopted Perl's terminology. the dot is short for the negated character class «[^\n]» (UNIX regex flavors) or «[^\r\n]» (Windows regex flavors). «\d\d[.]\d\d[. The problem is that the regex will also match in cases where it should not match. like this: m/^regex$/s. RegexOptions. so the dot could never match them. They would read a file line by line. Let's say we want to match a date in mm/dd/yy format. I will illustrate this with a simple example. space. including newlines. dot and forward slash as date separators.48 5. So by default. and the second matched „7”. the dot or period is one of the most commonly used metacharacters. and apply the regular expression separately to each line. Multi-line mode only affects anchors. EditPad Pro or PowerGREP. Put in a dot. It will match a date like „02/12/03” just fine. It allows you to be lazy. So if you expose this option to your users. some of these cases may not be so obvious at first.Singleline. This exception exists mostly because of historic reasons. Modern tools and languages can apply regular expressions to very large strings or even entire files./. Use The Dot Sparingly The dot is a very powerful regex metacharacter. The quick solution is «\d\d. you simply tick the checkbox labeled “dot matches newline”. the first dot matched „5”. so we do not need to escape it with a backslash. the dot will not match a newline character by default. This regex allows a dash. The first tools that used regular expressions were line-based./. The Dot Matches (Almost) Any Character In regular expressions. because it is easy to mix up this term with “multi-line mode”. “regex”. Remember that the dot is not a metacharacter inside a character class. All regex flavors discussed here have an option to make the dot match all characters.\d\d». it is also the most commonly misused metacharacter. In all programming languages and regex libraries I know. . please give it a clearer label like was done in RegexBuddy. The only exception are newlinecharacters. You can activate single-line mode by adding an s after the regex code. and single-line mode only affects the dot. but we want to leave the user the choice of date separators. Trouble is: „02512703” is also considered a valid date by this regular expression. the mode where the dot also matches newlines is called "single-line mode". such as in Regex.NET framework. you activate this mode by specifying RegexOptions.Singleline). In all regex flavors discussed in this tutorial. and everything will match just fine when you test the regex on valid data. activating single-line mode has no effect other than making the dot match newlines. Seems fine at first. the string could never contain newlines. In this match. When using the regex classes of the . The dot matches a single character.

so «". The reason for this is that the star is greedy.*"» seems to do the trick just fine.49 This regex is still far from perfect. . So the proper regex is «"[^"\r\n]*"». Here. we have a problem with “string one” and “string two”. it has to be perfect. though it will still match „19/39/99”. If you are validating user input.][0-3]\d[/. If you are parsing data files from a known source that generates its files in the same way every time. Please respond. Our original definition of a double-quoted string was faulty. Now go ahead and test it on “Houston. our last attempt is probably more than sufficient to parse the data without errors. Use Negated Character Sets Instead of the Dot I will explain this in depth when I present you the repeat operators star and plus. The regex matches „“string one” and “string two””. It matches „99/99/99” as a valid date. We do not want any number of any character between the quotes. including zero. it will match „“string”” just fine. We want any number of characters that are not double quotes or newlines between the quotes. Suppose you want to match a double-quoted string. Definitely not what we intended. but the warning is important enough to mention it here as well. we improved our regex by replacing the dot with a character class. we will do the same.]\d\d» is a step ahead. How perfect you want your regex to be depends on what you want to do with it. You can find a better regex to match dates in the example section. Sounds easy. The dot matches any character.” Ouch. and the star allows the dot to be repeated any number of times. We can have any number of any character between the double quotes. If you test this regex on “Put a “string” between double quotes”. «[0-1]\d[. I will illustrate with an example. In the date-matching example./.

I have explained literal characters and character classes.Match(“string”. after or between characters. «^\s+» matches leading whitespace and «\s+$» matches trailing whitespace.NET. Because “start of string” must be matched before the match of «\d+». It is easy for the user to accidentally type in a space. and regex tools like PowerGREP. you could use $input =~ s/^\s+|\s+$//g. . “regex”. you have to explicitly activate this extended functionality. The correct regex to use is «^\d+$». such as in Regex. the anchors match before and after newlines when you specify RegexOptions. you do this by adding an m after the regex code. Similarly. This makes sense because those applications are designed to work with entire files. «^b» will not match “abc” at all. They do not match any character at all. because «\d+» matches the 4. it will accept the input even if the user entered “qsdf4ghjk”. it is often desirable to work with lines. as well as after each line break (between “\n” and “s”). «$» matches right after the last character in the string. Anchors are a different breed. it is good practice to trim leading and trailing whitespace. «^» can then match at the start of the string (before the “f” in the above string). Therefore. RegexOptions. Likewise. while «a$» does not match at all. Handy use of alternation and /g allows us to do this in a single line of code. and “end of string” must be matched right after it. and also before every line break (between “e” and “\n”). In text editors like EditPad Pro or GNU Emacs. matched by «^». they match a position before. They can be used to “anchor” the regex match at a certain position. The caret «^» matches the position before the first character in the string. In Perl. In both cases. In Perl. «$» will still match at the end of the string (after the last “e”). the entire string must consist of digits for «^\d+$» to be able to match. So before validating input. In every programming language and regex library I know. See below for the inside view of the regex engine. When Perl reads from a line from a text file. If you use the code if ($input =~ m/\d+/) in a Perl script to see if the user entered an integer number. rather than short strings. Start of String and End of String Anchors Thus far. «c$» matches „c” in “abc”.50 6. Instead. It is traditionally called "multi-line mode". the caret and dollar always match at the start and end of each line.Multiline. the line break will also be stored in the variable. like this: m/^regex$/m. Useful Applications When using regular expressions in a programming language to validate user input. Using ^ and $ as Start of Line and End of Line Anchors If you have a string consisting of multiple lines. all the regex engines discussed in this tutorial have the option to expand the meaning of both anchors. because the «b» cannot be matched right after the start of the string..Multiline). In . like “first line\nsecond line” (where \n indicates a line break). rather than the entire string. Applying «^a» to “abc” matches „a”. putting one in a regex will cause the regex engine to try to match a single character. using anchors is very important.

this can be very useful or undesirable. the regex engine does not advance to the next character in the string.NET and PCRE. and after each newline. and insert the replacement string (greater than symbol and a space). for example. However. The Regex. This is true in all regex flavors discussed in this tutorial. Using «^\d*$» to test if the user entered a number (notice the use of the star instead of the plus). when reading a line from a file. the regex engine starts at the first character: “7”. matching only a position can be very useful. In Perl. If the string ends with a line break. See below. including Java. The engine then advances to the next regex token: «4». the match does include a starting position. However. We are using multi-line mode. Zero-Length Matches We saw that the anchors match at a position.Replace method will remove the regex match from the string. Since this token is a zero-width token. nothing is deleted. There are no other permutations of the . we can easily do this with Dim Quoted as String = Regex. both «^[a-z]+$» and «\A[a-z]+\Z» will match „joe”. «\Z» only ever matches at the end of the string.51 Permanent Start of String and End of String Anchors «\A» only ever matches at the start of the string. Looking Inside the Regex Engine Let's see what happens when we try to match «^4$» to “749\n486\n4” (where \n represents a newline character) in multi-line mode. Depending on the situation. rather than matching a character. Since the match does not include any characters. the resulting string will end with a line break. Since the previous token was zero-width. but rather with the position before the character that the regex engine has reached so far. RegexOptions. Strings Ending with a Line Break Even though «\Z» and «$» only match at the end of the string (when the option for the caret and dollar to match at embedded line breaks is off). it can result in a zero-length match. If you only want a match at the absolute very end of the string. «\z» matches after the line break. and the replacement string is inserted there. «4» is a literal character. there is one exception. rather than at the very end of the string. «^» indeed matches the position before “7”. These two tokens never match at line breaks. In email. In EditPad Pro and PowerGREP. «\A» and «\Z» only match at the start and the end of the entire file. where the caret and dollar always match at the start and end of lines. . then «\Z» and «$» will match at the position before that line break. even when you turn on “multiline mode”.Multiline). This means that when a regex only consists of one or more anchors. so the regex «^» matches at the start of the quoted message. It remains at “7”. just like we want it.NET. the engine does not try to match it with the character. "> ". When applied to this string. it is common to prepend a “greater than” symbol and a space to each line of the quoted message.Replace(Original. which is not matched by the character class. «\A[a-z]+\z» does not match “joe\n”. This “enhancement” was introduced by Perl. and is copied by many regex flavors. As usual. which does not match “7”. use «\z» (lower case z instead of upper case Z). would cause the script to accept an empty string as a valid input. In VB. "^". The first token in the regular expression is «^». Likewise. Reading a line from a file with the text “joe” results in the string “joe\n”.

the engine has found a successful match: the last „4” in the string.MatchPosition] may cause an access violation or segmentation fault. This time. If you would query the engine for the character position. without advancing the position in the string. Another Inside Look Earlier I mentioned that «^\d*$» would successfully match an empty string. There is only one “character” position in an empty string: the void after the string. The engine will proceed with the next regex token. it would return zero. “8”. and that character is not a newline. «^» cannot match at the position before the 4. because MatchPosition can point to the void after the string. The next token is «\d*». Again. the engine must try to match the first token again. The «^» can match at the position before the “4”. for «$» to match the position before the current character. and fails again. Then. Same at the six and the newline. it would return the length of the string if string indices are zero-based. The first token in the regex is «^». Caution for Programmers A regular expression such as «$» all by itself can indeed match after the string. «4» matches „4”. Yet again. This can also happen with «^» and «^$» if the last character in the string is a newline. and the engine advances both the regex token and the string character. the dollar matches successfully. What you have to watch out for is that String[Regex. the entire regex has matched the empty string. It must be either a newline.52 regex. At this point. Again. It does not matter that this “character” is the void after the string. we are trying to match a dollar sign. or the void after the string. . one of the star's effects is that it makes the «\d». so it will try to match the position before the current character. because it is preceded by a newline character. because this position is preceded by a character. Let's see why. but the star turns the failure of the «\d» into a zero-width success. the regex engine tries to match the first token at the third “4” in the string. Now the engine attempts to match «$» at the position before (indeed: before) the “8”. However. optional. The dollar cannot match here. Not even a negated character class. the position before “\n” is preceded by a character. so the engine starts again with the first regex token. and that character is not a newline. The engine continues at “9”. So the engine arrives at «$». where the caret does not match. the regex engine advances to the next regex token. it was successfully matched at the second “4”. and the engine reports success. at the next character: “4”. in this case. No regex token that needs a character to match can match here. and the current character is advanced to the very last position in the string: the void after the string. and that character is not a newline. and the mighty dollar is a strange beast. After that. Finally. With success. As we will see later. In fact. and the void after the string. “9”. the engine successfully matches «4» with „4”. Previously. the dollar will check the current character. It is zero-width. «4». the regex engine arrives at the second “4” in the string. The current regex token is advanced to «$». If you would query the engine for the length of the match. also fails. because it is preceded by the void before the string. That fails. The next attempt. Since «$» was the last token in the regex. but does not advance the character position in the string. The engine will try to match «\d» with the void after the string. at “\n”. so the engine continues at the next character. This position is preceded by a character. Since that is the case after the example. or the length+1 if string indices are one-based in your programming language. It matches the position before the void after the string. We already saw that those match.

the engine continues with the «i» which does not match with the space. So saying "«\b» matches before and after an alphanumeric sequence“ is more exact than saying ”before and after a word". «\B» matches at any position between two word characters as well as at any position between two non-word characters. Word Boundaries The metacharacter «\b» is an anchor like the caret and the dollar sign. Looking Inside the Regex Engine Let's see what happens when we apply the regex «\bis\b» to the string “This island is beautiful”. All characters that are not “word characters” are “non-word characters”. Between a non-word character and a word character following right after the non-word character. Negated Word Boundary «\B» is the negated version of «\b». Between a word character and a non-word character following right after the word character. if the last character is a word character. «\b» matches here because the space is not a word character. The engine starts with the first token «\b» at the first character “T”. This regex will not match “44 sheets of a4”. There are four different positions that qualify as word boundaries: • • • • Before the first character in the string. The engine continues with the next token: the literal «i». because the previous regex token was zero-width. So «\b4\b» can be used to match a 4 that is not part of a larger number. It cannot match between the “h” and the “i” either. the position before the character is inspected. there is only one metacharacter that matches both before a word and after a word. «i» does not match “T”.53 7. A “word character” is a character that can be used to form words. and neither between the “i” and the “s”. This is because any position between characters can never be both at the start and at the end of a word. if the first character is a word character. «\B» matches at every position where «\b» does not. Again. «\b» cannot match at the position between the “T” and the “h”. After the last character in the string. Note that «\w» usually also matches digits. Using only one operator makes things easier for you. The next character in the string is a space. In Perl and the other regex flavors discussed in this tutorial. but all word characters are always matched by the short-hand character class «\w». . Since this token is zero-length. «\b» matches here. so the engine retries the first token at the next character position. It matches at a position that is called a “word boundary”. Effectively. The exact list of characters is different for each regex flavor. This match is zero-length. All non-word characters are always matched by «\W». and the preceding character is. The engine does not advance to the next character in the string. Simply put: «\b» allows you to perform a “whole words only” search using a regular expression in the form of «\bword\b». because the T is a word character and the character before it is the void before the start of the string.

. Again. But «\b» matches at the position before the third “i” in the string. The last token in the regex. skipping the two earlier occurrences of the characters i and s. «\b». The engine has successfully matched the word „is” in our string. Continuing. it would have matched the „is” in “This”. the «\b» fails to match and continues to do so until the second space is reached. and the character before it is. and finds that «i» matches „i” and «s» matches «s». It matches there. «\b» matches between the space and the second “i” in the string. Now. This fails because this position is between two word characters. the regex engine finds that «i» matches „i” and «s» matches „s”. also matches at the position before the second space in the string because the space is not a word character. but matching the «i» fails. If we had used the regular expression «is». The engine reverts to the start of the regex and advances one character to the “s” in “island”.54 Advancing a character and restarting with the first regex token. the engine tries to match the second «\b» at the position before the “l”. The engine continues.

we would need to use «\b(cat|dog)\b». so the entire regex has successfully matched „Set” in “SetValue”. Contrary to what we intended. the regex engine studied the entire regular expression before starting. There are several solutions. «SetValue» will be attempted before «Set». as well as the next token in the regex. «G».55 8. and then another word boundary. «e» matches „e”. If we had omitted the round brackets. So the solution is «\b(Get|GetValue| Set|SetValue)\b» or «\b(Get(Value)?|Set(Value)?)\b». The regex engine starts at the first token in the regex. The best option is probably to express the fact that we only want to match complete words. If you want to search for the literal text «cat» or «dog». simply expand the list: «cat|dog|mouse|fish». You can use alternation to match a single regular expression out of several possible regular expressions. «SetValue» will be attempted before «Set». Suppose you want to use a regex to match a list of function names in a programming language: Get. there are no other tokens in the regex outside the alternation. The next token in the regex is the «e» after the «S» that just successfully matched. It will stop searching as soon as it finds a valid match. . At this point. This tells the regex engine to find a word boundary. The alternation operator has the lowest precedence of all regex operators. the regex engine would have searched for “a word boundary followed by cat”. The match fails again. So it knows that this regular expression uses alternation. or everything to the right of the vertical bar. you will need to use round brackets for grouping. or. If we want to improve the first example to match whole words only. being the second «G» in the regex. Because the question mark is greedy. If we use «GetValue|Get|SetValue|Set». Since all options have the same end. «t» matches „t”. the regex did not match the entire string. separate both options with a vertical bar or pipe symbol: «cat|dog». and at the first character in the string. The next token. Alternation with The Vertical Bar or Pipe Symbol I already explained how you can use character classes to match a single character out of several possible characters. “S”. the third option in the alternation has been successfully matched. it tells the regex engine to match either everything to the left of the vertical bar. If you want to limit the reach of the alternation. The consequence is that in certain situations. We do not want to match Set or SetValue if the string is “SetValueFunction”. In this example. Alternation is similar. The match succeeds. The obvious solution is «Get|GetValue|Set|SetValue». We could also combine the four options into two and use the question mark to make part of them optional: «Get(Value)?|Set(Value)?». the order of the alternatives matters. then either “cat” or “dog”. GetValue. Remember That The Regex Engine Is Eager I already explained that the regex engine is eager. and that the entire regex has not failed yet. it considers the entire alternation to have been successfully matched as soon as one of the options has. Because the regex engine is eager. One option is to take into account that the regex engine is eager. Set or SetValue. and change the order of the options. and the engine will match the entire string. That is. Let's see how this works out when the string is “SetValue”. If you want more options. "dog followed by a word boundary. we can optimize this further to «\b(Get|Set)(Value)?\b». The next token is the first «S» in the regex. However. The match fails. So it continues with the second option. and the engine continues with the next character in the string.

The engine continues. turn off the greediness) by putting a second question mark after the first. and finds that «o» matches „o”. „Feb 23rd” and „Feb 23”. You can make the question mark lazy (i. E. «l» and «o» match the following characters. You can write a regular expression that matches many alternatives by including more than one question mark. This fails. Now the engine checks whether «u» matches “r”. Important Regex Concept: Greediness With the question mark. After a series of failures. the engine will skip ahead to the next regex token: «r». The first position where it matches successfully is the „c” in “colonel”. This matches „r” and the engine reports that the regex successfully matched „color” in our string. «c» will match with the „c” in “color”. «l» matches „l” and another «o» matches „o”.: «colou?r» matches both „colour” and „color”. Again: no problem. The question mark allows the engine to continue with «r». Looking Inside The Regex Engine Let's apply the regular expression «colou?r» to the string “The colonel likes the color green”. I have introduced the first metacharacter that is greedy. the engine can only conclude that the entire regular expression cannot be matched starting at the „c” in “colonel”. I will say a lot more about greediness when discussing the other repetition operators. the question mark tells the regex engine that failing to match «u» is acceptable. Only if this causes the entire regular expression to fail. The first token in the regex is the literal «c». Therefore.: «Nov(ember)?» will match „Nov” and „November”.e.g. However. The question mark gives the regex engine two choices: try to match the part the question mark applies to. the match will always be „Feb 23rd” and not „Feb 23”. «Feb(ruary)? 23(rd)?» matches „February 23rd”. The effect is that if you apply the regex «Feb 23(rd)?» to the string “Today is Feb 23rd. . and «o». Now. and placing the question mark after the closing bracket.g. But this fails to match “n” as well. or do not try to match it. The engine will always try to match that part. Then the engine checks whether «u» matches “n”. Optional Items The question mark makes the preceding token in the regular expression optional.56 9. This fails. E. Therefore. „February 23”. will the engine try ignoring the part the question mark applies to. You can make several tokens optional by grouping them together using round brackets. 2003”. the engine starts again trying to match «c» to the first o in “colonel”.

I will present you with two possible solutions. The asterisk or star tells the engine to attempt to match the preceding token zero or more times. the first character class will match „H”. You might expect the regex to match „<EM>” and when continuing after that match. Repetition with Star and Plus I already introduced one repetition operator or quantifier: the question mark.57 10. and «{1.4}\b» matches a number between 100 and 99999. and max is an integer equal to or greater than min indicating the maximum number of matches. «\b[1-9][09]{2. After that. But it does not. Watch Out for The Greediness! Suppose you want to use a regex to match an HTML tag. which is not a valid HTML tag. The sharp brackets are literals. The plus tells the engine to attempt to match the preceding token once or more. where min is a positive integer number indicating the minimum number of matches. You know that the input will be a valid HTML file. the plus causes the regex engine to repeat the preceding token as often as possible. If it sits between sharp brackets. The second character class matches a letter or digit. Most people new to regular expressions will attempt to use «<. When matching „<HTML>”. have an additional repetition operator that allows you to specify how many times a token can be repeated. The regex will match „<EM>first</EM>”. because this regex would match „<1>”. If the comma is present but max is omitted. The reason is that the plus is greedy. But this regex may be sufficient if you know the string you are searching through does not contain any such invalid tags. Only if that causes the entire regex to fail. it is an HTML tag. in effect making it optional.}» is the same as «*». it's OK if the second character class matches nothing. You could use «\b[1-9][0-9]{3}\b» to match a number between 1000 and 9999. Omitting both the comma and max tells the engine to repeat the token exactly min times. «<[A-Za-z][A-Za-z0-9]*>» matches an HTML tag without any attributes.max}.+>». like those discussed in this tutorial. Let's take a look inside the regex engine to see in detail how this works and why this causes our regex to fail. Because we used the star. I could also have used «<[A-Za-z0-9]+>». it will go back to the plus. I did not. They will be surprised when they test it on a string like “This is a <EM>first</EM> test”. Obviously not what we wanted. the star and the repetition using curly braces are greedy. That is. so the regular expression does not need to exclude any invalid use of sharp brackets. Like the plus. the maximum number of matches is infinite.}» is the same as «+». The syntax is {min. So «{0. Notice the use of the word boundaries. . That is. make it give up the last iteration. Limiting Repetition Modern regex flavors. It tells the engine to attempt match the preceding token zero times or once. „</EM>”. and proceed with the remainder of the regex. So our regex will match a tag like „<B>”. „M” and „L” with each step. The star repeats the second character class. The star will cause the second character class to be repeated three times. will the regex engine backtrack. matching „T”. The first character class matches a letter.

+» is reduced to „EM>first</EM> tes”. the engine has to backtrack for each character in the HTML tag that it is trying to match. the curly braces and the question mark itself. the engine will backtrack. causing the engine to backtrack further. „M” is matched. «>» can match the next character in the string. Therefore.+» is expanded to „EM”. Again. That's more like it. «>» cannot match here. the first place where it will match is the first „<” in the string. You can do the same with the star. You can do that by putting a question markbehind the plus in the regex. The engine reports that „<EM>first</EM>” has been successfully matched. The engine remembers that the plus has repeated the dot more often than is required. Again. The next token in the regex is still «>». An Alternative to Laziness In this case. So the match of «. When using the lazy plus. Let's have another look inside the regex engine. The dot will match all remaining characters in the string.+» has matched „<EM>first</EM> test” and the engine has arrived at the end of the string. «<» matches the first „<” in the string. so the regex continues to try to match the dot with the next character. The dot matches „E”. The total match so far is reduced to „<EM>first</EM> te”. this is the leftmost longest match. Now. Remember that the regex engine is eager to return a match. and the engine continues with «>» and “M”. So the engine matches the dot with „E”. The engine reports that „<EM>” has been successfully matched. this time repeated by a lazy plus.58 Looking Inside The Regex Engine The first token in the regex is «<». It will report the first valid match it finds. But this time. The plus is greedy. The dot matches the „>”. the engine will backtrack. and then continue trying the remainder of the regex. So our example becomes «<. It will not continue backtracking further to see if there is another possible match. Only at this point does the regex engine continue with the next token: «>».+» is reduced to „EM>first</EM”. Again. As we already know. „>” is matched successfully. We can use a greedy plus and a negated character class: «<[^>]+>». the backtracking will force the lazy plus to expand rather than reduce its reach. So the engine continues backtracking until the match of «. The dot is repeated by the plus.) Rather than admitting failure. Now. The reason why this is better is because of the backtracking. So the match of «. the engine will repeat the dot as many times as it can. The last token in the regex has been matched. «<. no backtracking occurs at all when the string contains valid HTML code. But now the next character in the string is the last “t”. The next token is the dot. You should see the problem by now. and the engine tries again to continue with «>». Because of greediness. (Remember that the plus requires the dot to match only once. This is a literal. So far. This fails. This tells the regex engine to repeat the dot as few times as possible. there is a better option than making the plus lazy. The last token in the regex has been matched. The next token is the dot. and the engine continues repeating the dot. . these cannot match. The requirement has been met. When using the negated character class. Laziness Instead of Greediness The quick fix to this problem is to make the plus lazy instead of greedy. The next character is the “>”. But «>» still cannot match. It will reduce the repetition of the plus by one.+?>». which matches any character except newlines. The minimum is one. The dot fails when the engine has reached the void after the end of the string. and the dot is repeated once more.

but they also do not support lazy repetition operators. or perhaps in a custom syntax coloring scheme for EditPad Pro. They do not get the speed penalty. remember that this tutorial only talks about regex-directed engines. . But you will save plenty of CPU cycles when using such a regex is used repeatedly in a tight loop in a script that you are writing. Finally.59 Backtracking slows down the regex engine. Text-directed engines do not backtrack. You will not notice the difference when doing a single search in a text editor.

and curly braces are used by a special repetition operator. EditPad Pro and PowerGREP have a unique feature that allows you to change the case of the backreference.g. and the question mark as a character to change the properties of a pair of round brackets. \L1 in lowercase and \F1 with the first character in uppercase and the remainder in lowercase. You can reuse it inside the regular expression (see below). A backreference stores the part of the string matched by the part of the regular expression inside the parentheses. the first backreference will contain „Value”. unless you use non-capturing parentheses. depends on the tool you are using. This operator cannot appear after an opening round bracket. Note that only round brackets can be used for grouping. How to Use Backreferences Backreferences allow you to reuse part of the regex match. . If you do not use the backreference. That is. e. Remembering part of the regex match in a backreference. The colon indicates that the change we want to make is to turn off capturing the backreference. The regex «Set(Value)?» matches „Set” or „SetValue”. Round Brackets Create a Backreference Besides grouping part of a regular expression together. a repetition operator. you can use the backreference in the replacement text during a search-and-replace operation by typing \1 (backslash one) into the replacement text. at the expense of making your regular expression slightly harder to read. In the first case. and the other letters in lowercase. If you do not use the backreference. I have already used round brackets for this purpose in previous topics throughout this tutorial. or afterwards. That question mark is the regex operator that makes the previous token optional.60 11. In the second case. you can speed things up by using non-capturing parentheses. to the entire group. Square brackets define a character class. If you searched for «EditPad (Lite|Pro)» and use “\1 version” as the replacement. there is no confusion between the question mark as an operator to make a token optional. and “Pro version” in case „EditPad Pro” was matched. Finally. you can optimize this regular expression into «Set(?:Value)?». because an opening bracket by itself is not a valid regex token. you can group that part of the regular expression together. \I1 inserts it with the first letter of each word capitalized. round brackets also create a “backreference”. The question mark and the colon after the opening round bracket are the special syntax that you can use to tell the regex engine that this pair of brackets should not create a backreference. because it did not match anything. the actual replacement will be “Lite version” in case „EditPad Lite” was matched. slows down the regex engine because it has more work to do. What you can do with it afterwards. Use Round Brackets for Grouping By placing part of a regular expression inside round brackets or parentheses. Therefore. Note the question mark after the opening bracket is unrelated to the question mark at the end of the regex. the first backreference will be empty. In EditPad Pro or PowerGREP. This allows you to apply a regex operator. \U1 inserts the first backreference in uppercase.

The «/» before it is simply the forward slash in the closing HTML tag that we are trying to match. scan the regular expression from left to right and count the opening round brackets. The .*?</\1>». The first bracket starts backreference number one. Suppose you want to match a pair of opening and closing HTML tags.NET (dot net) Regex class also has a method Replace that can do a regex-based search-and-replace on a string.NET (dot net) where backreferences are made available as an array or numbered list. You can reuse the same backreference more than once. To get the string matched by the third backreference in C#. etc. $2. but also during the match. The Entire Regex Match As Backreference Zero Certain tools make the entire regex match available as backreference zero. or it will fail to match anything without an error message. which is a collection of Group objects. you can use the entire regex match in the replacement text during a search and replace operation by typing \0 (backslash zero) into the replacement text. «([a-c])x\1x\1» will match „axaxa”. This backreference is reused with «\1» (backslash one). only in the replacement. you can use the Match object that is returned by the Match method of the Regex class. Here's how: «<([A-Z][A-Z09]*)[^>]*>. In the replacement text. Therefore. In Perl. In . . This object has a property called Groups. because that would force the engine to continuously keep an extra copy of the entire regex match. you can use MyMatch. which capture the string matched by «[A-Z][A-Z0-9]» into the first backreference.NET (dot net). „bxbxb” and „cxcxc”. «([abc]\1)» will not work. you can use the magic variables $1. the magic variable $& holds the entire regex match. to access the part of the string matched by the backreference. In Perl. A backreference cannot be used inside itself. This fact means that non-capturing parentheses have another benefit: you can insert them into a regular expression without changing the numbers assigned to the backreferences. This can be very useful when modifying a complex regular expression. $2.Value. to insert backreferences. we can reuse the name of the tag for the closing tag. Using Backreferences in The Regular Expression Backreferences can not only be used after a match has been found. To figure out the number of a particular backreference. This regex contains only one pair of parentheses. Using an empty backreference in the regex is perfectly fine. and the text in between. By putting the opening tag into a backreference. Using backreference zero is more efficient than putting an extra pair of round brackets around the entire regex. you can use $1. Non-capturing parentheses are not counted. Depending on your regex flavor. etc. In EditPad Pro or PowerGREP. it is simply empty. the item with index zero holds the entire regex match. Libraries like . It will simply be replaced with nothingness. it will either give an error message. the second number two. If a backreference was not used in a particular match attempt (such as in the first example where the question mark made the first backreference optional). etc.Groups[3].61 Regex libraries in programming languages also provide access to the backreference. \0 cannot be used inside a regex.

At this point. the engine proceeds with the match attempt. The regex engine also takes note that it is now inside the first pair of capturing parentheses. „c” was stored. taking note that it should backtrack in case the remainder of the regex fails. Note that the token the backreference. However. The position in the string remains at “>”. But this did not happen here. so „B” it is. It will use the last match saved into the backreference each time it needs to be used. «[^>]» does not match „>”. that's perfectly fine. After storing the backreference. These obviously match. This step crosses the closing bracket of the first pair of capturing parentheses. The engine arrives again at «\1». so the engine again backtracks. it holds «b» which fails to match “c”. Backtracking continues again until the dot has consumed „<I>bold italic</I>”. so the engine backtracks again. because of the star. while the second regex will only store „b”. Obvious when you look at a . the new value stored in the first backreference would be used. There is a clear difference between «([abc]+)» and «([abc])+». This prompts the regex engine to store what was matched inside them into the first backreference. The first time. and the dot consumes the third “<” in the string. The next token is «\1». These do not match. The engine advances to «[A-Z0-9]» and “>”. The next token is «/». so the engine again takes note of the available backtracking position and advances to «<» and “I”. because of another star. This fails to match at “I”. The next token is «[A-Z]». The position in the regex is advanced to «[^>]». The position in the string remains at “>”. The regex engine will traverse the string until it can match at the first „<” in the string. The second time „a” and the third time „b”. The star is still lazy. This also means that «([abc]+)=\1» will match „cab=cab”. The dot matches the second „<” in the string. «[A-Z]» matches „B”. This does not match “I”. this is not a problem. repeated by a lazy star. and not «B». That is because in the second regex. The next token is a dot.62 Looking Inside The Regex Engine Let's see how the regex engine applies the above regex to the string “Testing <B><I>bold italic</I></B> text”. and that «([abc])+=\1» will not. This match fails. the previous value was overwritten. «B» matches „B”. In this case. so „b” remains. the plus caused the pair of parentheses to repeat three times. and the second “<” in the string. The first token in the regex is the literal «<». it will read the value that was stored. the regex engine will initially skip this token. „B” is stored. Again. and position in the regex is advanced to «>». Because of the laziness. «<» matches „<” and «/» matches „/”. the previously saved match is overwritten. Though both successfully match „cab”. and the engine is forced to backtrack to the dot. A complete match has been found: „<B><I>bold italic</I></B>”. If a new match is found by capturing parentheses. The engine has now arrived at the second «<» in the regex. and the next token is «/» which matches “/”. «<» matches the third „<” in the string. The engine does not substitute the backreference in the regular expression. «>» matches „>”. Each time. The last token in the regex. the first regex will put „cab” into the first backreference. The reason is that when the engine arrives at «\1». The backreference still holds „B”. Repetition and Backreferences As I mentioned in the above inside look. At this point. These match. the regex engine does not permanently substitute backreferences in the regular expression. Every time the engine arrives at the backreference. This means that if the engine had backtracked beyond the first pair of capturing parentheses before arriving the second time at «\1». The backtracking continues until the dot has consumed „<I>bold italic”.

The \1 in regex like «(a)[\1b]» will be interpreted as an octal escape in most regex flavors. doubled words such as “the the” easily creep in. Backreferences also cannot be used inside a character class. Parentheses and Backreferences Cannot Be Used Inside Character Classes Round brackets cannot be used inside character classes. „b”. always double check that you are really capturing what you want. So this regex will match an a followed by either «\x01» or a «b». When you put a round bracket in a character class. When using backreferences. it is treated as a literal character. but a common cause of difficulty with regular expressions nonetheless. simply type in “\1” as the replacement text and click the Replace button. Using the regex «\b(\w+)\s+\1\b» in your text editor. To delete the second word. So the regex «[(a)b]» matches „a”. Useful Example: Checking for Doubled Words When editing text. . „(” and „)”. you can easily find them.63 simple example like this one. at least not as metacharacters.

Unfortunately. Named Capture with Python. starting with one. since they are based on PCRE. In PHP. You can reference the contents of the group with the numbered backreference «\1» or the named backreference «(?P=name)». The open source PCRE library has followed Python's example. Simply use a name instead of a number between the curly braces. PHP.NET style: «(?<first>group)(?'second'group)». Currently. The second syntax is preferable in ASP code. You can use the pointy bracket flavor and the quoted flavors interchangeably. use «\k<name>» or «\k'name'». and the other using single quotes. no other regex flavor supports Microsoft's version of named capture. Python and PCRE treat named capturing groups just like unnamed capturing groups. starting with one. Here is an example with two capturing groups in . The first syntax is preferable in strings.NET offers two syntaxes to create a capturing group: one using sharp brackets.Text. By assigning a name to a capturing group. As you can see.64 12. rather than follow the one pioneered by Python. Use Round Brackets for Grouping All modern regular expression engines support capturing groups.NET languages. The regex . the numbering can get a little confusing. . the Microsoft developers decided to invent their own syntax. you can reference the named group with the familiar dollar sign syntax: “${name}”. you can easily reference it by name. and will convert one flavor of named capture into the other when generating source code snippets for Python. RegexBuddy supports both Python's and Microsoft's style. Again.NET framework also support named capture. This does not work in PHP. «(?P<name>group)» captures the match of «group» into the backreference “name”. or one of the . and number both kinds from left to right. Python's sub() function allows you to reference a named group as “\1” or “\g<name>”. PHP/preg. where single quotes may need to be escaped. which are numbered from left to right. In a complex regular expression with many capturing groups. or to use part of the regex match for further processing. Named Capture with .RegularExpressions The regular expression classes of the . and offers named capture using the same syntax. The PHP preg functions offer the same functionality.NET's System. Names and Numbers for Capturing Groups Here is where things get a bit ugly. To reference a capturing group inside the regex. PCRE and PHP Python's regex module was the first to offer a solution: named capture. you can use double-quoted string interpolation with the $regs parameter you passed to pcre_match(): “$regs['name']”. you can use the two syntactic variations interchangeably. The numbers can then be used in backreferences to match the same text again in the regular expression. When doing a search-and-replace. where the sharp brackets are used for HTML tags.

in this case: three. Then the named groups «(?<x>b)» and «(?<y>d)» get their numbers. continuing from the unnamed groups. starting at one. just assume that named groups do not get numbered at all. and reference them by name exclusively. you will get “abcd”. If you do a search-and-replace with this regex and the replacement “\1\2\3\4”. or make it non-capturing as in «(?:nocapture)». I strongly recommend that you do not mix named and unnamed capturing groups at all. However. since the regex engine does not need to keep track of their matches. So the unnamed groups «(a)» and «(c)» get numbered first. Probably not what you expected. To keep things compatible across regex flavors. when using . Either give a group a name. All four groups were numbered from left to right. from left to right. Easy and logical. The regex «(a)(?<x>b)(c)(?<y>d)» again matches „abcd”. To make things simple.NET framework does number named capturing groups from left to right. .NET framework. if you do a search-and-replace with “$1$2$3$4” as the replacement. but numbers them after all the unnamed groups have been numbered.NET's regex support. you will get “acbd”. from one till four.65 «(a)(?P<x>b)(c)(?P<y>d)» matches „abcd” as expected. Non-capturing groups are more efficient. Things are quite a bit more complicated with the . The .

(?i-sm) turns on case insensitivity. m/regex/i turns on case insensitivity. . in Perl. The latest versions of all tools and languages discussed in this book do. You have probably noticed the resemblance between the modifier span and the non-capturing group «(?:group)». Specifying Modes Inside The Regular Expression Sometimes. the tool or language does not provide the ability to specify matching options. one to turn an option on. E. To turn off several modes. while (?ism) turns on all three options. In this mode. The regex «(?i)te(?-i)st» should match „test” and „TEst”. the modifier only applies to the part of the regex to the right of the modifier. E. while Pattern. E. You can turn off a mode by preceding it with a minus sign. you can add a mode modifier to the start of the regex.66 13. the non-capturing group is a modifier span that does not change any modifiers. the caret and dollar match before and after newlines in the subject string. Older regex flavors usually apply the option to the entire regular expression.compile(“regex”. Many regex flavors have additional modes or options that have single letter equivalents. In that situation. It is obvious that the modifier span does not create a backreference. Turning Modes On and Off for Only Part of The Regular Expression Modern regex flavors allow you to apply modifiers to only part of the regular expression. Regex Matching Modes All regular expression engines discussed in this tutorial support the following three matching modes: • • • /i makes the regex match case insensitive. Pattern. E. «(?i)ignorecase(?-i)casesensitive(?i)ignorecase» is equivalent to «(?i)ignorecase(?i:casesensitive)ignorecase».compile() does. the dot matches newlines. and turns on multi-line mode.g. (?i) turns on case insensitivity. precede each of their letters with a minus sign.CASE_INSENSITIVE) does the same in Java.matches() method in Java does not take a parameter for matching options like Pattern. /s enables "single-line mode".g. Most programming languages allow you to pass option flags when constructing the regex object. turns off single-line mode. If you insert the modifier (?ism) in the middle of the regex.g. the handy String. Technically. you use a modifier span. Most tools that support regular expressions have checkboxes or similar controls that you can use to turn these modes on or off. Modifier Spans Instead of using two modifiers. You can quickly test this. but these differ widely. but not “teST” or “TEST”. In this mode. and one to turn it off.g. /m enables "multi-line mode". no matter where you placed it. Not all regex flavors support this.

){11}» had consumed „1. Since there is still no P. First.6. this regex looks like it should do the job just fine. The regex engine now checks whether the 13th field starts with a P. the comma does not match the “1” in the 12th field. The next token is again the dot. The problem rears its ugly head when the 12th field does not start with a P. The dot matches the comma! However.6. they do not change the fact that the regex engine will backtrack to try all possible permutations of the regular expression in case no match can be found. But between each expansion. This causes software like EditPad Pro to stop responding. Finally. again trying all possible combinations for the 9th.10. expanding the match of the 10th iteration to „10. Catastrophic Backtracking Recently I got a complaint from a customer that EditPad Pro hung (i. and the {11} skips the first 11 fields.12.».”. Atomic Grouping and Possessive Quantifiers When discussing the repetition operators or quantifiers. You can already see the root of the problem: the part of the regex (the dot) matching the contents of the field also matches the delimiter (the comma). this leads to a catastrophic amount of backtracking.5.9. giving up the last match of the comma.8.”. subsequently expanding it to „9.*?.10.10. they can change the overall regex match. it stopped responding) when trying to find lines in a comma-delimited text file where the 12th item on a line started with a “P”.”. Since there is no comma after the 13th field. The customer was using the regexp «^(. this is exactly what will happen when the 12th field indeed starts with a P.*?. the same story starts with the 9th iteration. the regex engine can no longer match the 11th iteration of «. You get the idea: the possible number of combinations that the regex engine will try for each line where the 12th field does not start with a P is huge.7.4. It does not. A greedy quantifier will first try to repeat the token as many times as possible. the 10th could match just „11.11.”. But it does not give up there.5. Because greediness and laziness change the order in which permutations are tried. so the dot continues until the 11th iteration of «. and gradually expand the match as the engine backtracks through the regex to find an overall match.13”. the 10th iteration is expanded to „10. „9.7. When the 9th iteration consumes „9. Greediness and laziness determine the order in which the regex engine tries the possible permutations of the regex pattern. Let's say the string is “1.*?.*?. I explained the difference between greedy and lazy repetition. the engine backtracks to the 8th iteration. and gradually give up matches as the engine backtracks to find an overall match.3.” as well as „11. At first sight.”. Reaching the end of the string again.2. 10th. However. the P checks if the 12th field indeed starts with P. In fact. let's see why backtracking can lead to problems.11.e. It backtracks to the 10th iteration.11.12.12.){11}P». It will backtrack to the point where «^(. Continuously failing.”. At that point.11.12.11. The lazy dot and comma match a single comma-delimited field.2. The dot matches a comma.» has consumed „11.67 14. and 11th iterations.10.”.”.9.11”.4. „9. A lazy quantifier will first repeat the token as few times as required. there are more possiblities to be tried.10. Because of the double repetition (star inside {11}). the regex engine will backtrack.12. or even crash as the regex engine runs out of memory trying to remember all backtracking positions.8.3. .10.

6. Everything between (?>) is treated as one single token by the regex engine. though the JDK documentation uses the term “independent group” rather than “atomic group”. allowing the regex engine to fail faster.2.){11})P». . without trying further options. The Java supports it starting with JDK version 1. In the above example. If repeating the inner loop 4 times and the outer loop 7 times results in the same overall match as repeating the inner loop 6 times and the outer loop 2 times. In that case. When nesting repetition operators. If there is no token before the group. place a plus after it.){11}P».NET support atomic grouping. The fields must not contain comma's. Atomic Grouping and Possessive Quantifiers Recent regex flavors have introduced two additional solutions to this problem: atomic grouping and possessive quantifiers. Possessive quantifiers are a limited form of atomic grouping with a cleaner notation. and PCRE version 4 and later.4.\r\n]» is not able to expand beyond the comma.n}+». the engine will still backtrack. So the regex becomes: «^([^. and only supported by the latest versions of most regex flavors.4. once the regex engine leaves the group. we could easily reduce the amount of backtracking to a very low level by better specifying what we wanted. Note that you cannot make a lazy quantifier possessive.*?. no backtracking can take place once the regex engine has found a match for the group. make absolutely sure that there is only one way to match the same match. If backtracking is required. Python does not support atomic grouping. But that is not always possible in such a straightforward manner.0 and later. as do recent versions of PCRE and PHP's pgreg functions. At this time. you can be sure that the regex engine will try all those combinations. possessive quantifiers are only supported by the Java JDK 1. the regex must retry the entire regex at the next position in the string. forcing the regex engine to the previous one of the 11 iterations immediately. It would match the minimum number of matches and never expand the match because backtracking is not allowed. Similarly. Because the entire group is one token. you can use «x*+». and each time the «[^. If the P cannot be found. We want to match 11 commadelimited fields. Tool and Language Support for Atomic Grouping and Possessive Quantifiers Atomic grouping is a recent addition to the regex scene. the engine has to backtrack to the regex token before the group (the caret in our example). as do all versions of RegexBuddy. Using atomic grouping. To make a quantifier possessive. Perl supports it starting with version 5. the solution is to be more exact about what we want to match. «x++» is the same as «(?>x+)». The latest versions of EditPad Pro and PowerGREP support both atomic grouping and possessive quantifiers. But it will backtrack only 11 times. Their purpose is to prevent backtracking. you should use atomic grouping to prevent the regex engine from backtracking. All versions of .\r\n]*. «x?+» and «x{m. In our example.68 Preventing Catastrophic Backtracking The solution is simple. the above regex becomes «^(?>(.

often it is not.\r\n]*). the cause of this is that the token «\d» that is repeated can also match the delimiter «6». rather than after 30 attempts to match the caret and a huge number of attempts to try all combinations of both quantifiers in the regex. «\d+» will match the entire string. That is.4. you can reduce clutter by writing «^(?>([^. The engine now tries to match «P» to the “1” in the 12th field.13”.3.2. everything happened just like in the original. The dot matches „1”. When To Use Atomic Grouping or Possessive Quantifiers Atomic grouping and possessive quantifiers speed up failure by eliminating backtracking. «\d++6» will not match at all. you often can avoid the problem without atomic grouping as in the example above. When nesting quantifiers like in the above example.6. all backtracking information is discarded and the group is now considered a single token. and the match fails. so the dot is initially skipped. and declares failure. With the former regex.10.9. Now comes the difference. Because the group is atomic. Now. the regex engine did not cross the closing round bracket of the atomic group. «\d+6» will match „123456” in “123456789”. or process huge amounts of data.7. using simple repetition. With combined repetition.){11})P». The engine now tries to match the caret at the next position in the string.8. The engine walks through the string until the end. you will not earn back the extra time to type in the characters for the atomic grouping.){11})P» is applied to “1. This shows again that understanding how the regex engine works on the inside will enable you to avoid many pitfalls and craft efficient regular expressions that match exactly what you want.5. If possessive quantifiers are available.69 Atomic Grouping Inside The Regex Engine Let's see how «^(?>(. This fails. since possessive. no backtracking is allowed. the regex engine backtracks once for each character matched by the star. the engine backtracks until the 6 can be matched. if you are smart about combined repetition. Still. If the final x in the regex cannot be matched. you really should use atomic grouping and/or possessive quantifiers whenever possible. While «x[^x]*+x» and «x(?>[^x]*)x» fail faster than «x[^x]*x». then atomic grouping may make a difference. «{11}» causes further repetition until the atomic group has matched „1. The previous token is an atomic group. which fails.*?. That is what atomic grouping and possessive quantifiers are for: efficiency by disallowing backtracking.8. They do not speed up success.){11})P».9. and just one attempt to match the atomic group.7.11.4.”. Note that atomic grouping and possessive quantifiers can alter the outcome of the regular expression match. so the group's entire match is discarded and the engine backtracks further to the caret.11. so the engine backtracks.10.\r\n]*+. the amount of time wasted increases exponentially and will very quickly exhaust the capabilities of your computer. Sometimes this is desirable. Again.5. If the regex will be used in a tight loop in an application. The star is not possessive. the increase in speed is minimal. Failure is declared after 30 attempts to match the caret. so the engine backtracks to the dot. and the comma matches too. the amount of time wasted with pointless backtracking increases in a linear fashion to the length of the string. But the comma does not match “1”.6. The star is lazy.3.12. . troublesome regular expression. «P» failed to match. and is not immediately enclosed by an atomic group. With simple repetition. The most efficient regex for our problem at hand would be «^(?>((?>[^. That's right: backtracking is allowed here. the engine leaves the atomic group. The caret matches at the start of the string and the engine enters the atomic group. If you are simply doing a search in a text editor.2. greedy repetition of the star is faster than a backtracking lazy dot. In the latter case. So far. only failure.

The engine advances to the next character: “i”. Positive and Negative Lookahead Negative lookahead is indispensable if you want to match something not followed by something else. Collectively. you have to put capturing parentheses around the regex inside the lookahead. this means that the lookahead has successfully matched at the current position. The engine notes that the regex inside the lookahead failed. with the opening bracket followed by a question mark and an explanation point. Let's try applying the same regex to “quit”. So the next token is «u».70 15. As we already know. I already explained why you cannot use a negated character class to match a “q” not followed by a “u”. At this point. When explaining character classes. without making the u part of the match.) Any valid regular expression can be used inside the lookahead. They are also called “zero-width assertions”. The exception is JavaScript. with the opening bracket followed by a question mark and an equals sign. the entire regex has matched. The next character is the “u”. So it is not included in the count towards numbering the backreferences. You can use any regular expression inside the lookahead. The engine notes success. The next token is the «u» inside the lookahead. like this: «(?=(regex))». The positive lookahead construct is a pair of round brackets. If it contains capturing parentheses. and begins matching the regex inside the lookahead. because the lookahead will already have discarded the regex match by the time the backreference is to be saved. I will explain why below. «q» matches „q”. Lookarounds allow you to create regular expressions that are impossible to create without them. This does not match the void behind the string. and „q” is returned as the match. we have the trivial regex «u». The difference is that lookarounds will actually match characters. The first token in the regex is the literal «q». All regex flavors discussed in this book support lookaround. Because the lookahead is negative. The engine takes note that it is inside a lookahead construct now. They do not consume characters in the string. The next token is the lookahead. or that would get very longwinded without them. but only assert whether a match is possible or not. and start and end of word anchors that I already explained. Lookahead and Lookbehind Zero-Width Assertions Perl 5 introduced two very powerful constructs: “lookahead” and “lookbehind”. and discards the regex match. These match. The negative lookahead construct is the pair of round brackets. this will cause the engine to traverse the string until the „q” in the string is matched. Inside the lookahead. «q(?=u)» matches a q that is followed by a u. . The position in the string is now the void behind the string. but then give up the match and only return the result: match or no match. This causes the engine to step back in the string to “u”. The other way around will not work. Regex Engine Internals First. That is why they are called “assertions”. Positive lookahead works just the same. If you want to store the match of the regex inside a backreference. the backreferences will be saved. (Note that this is not the case with lookbehind. these are called “lookaround”. let's see how the engine applies «q(?!u)» to the string “Iraq”. Negative lookahead provides the solution: «q(?!u)». They are zero-width just like the start and end of line. Note that the lookahead itself does not create a backreference. However. which supports lookahead but not lookbehind. it is done with the regex inside the lookahead.

to check if the text inside the lookbehind can be matched there. The positive lookbehind matches. to make sure you understand the implications of the lookahead. the engine has to start again at the beginning. the successful match inside it causes the lookahead to fail. the match from the lookahead must be discarded. (Note that a negative lookbehind would have succeeded here. because there are no more q's in the string. «q» matches „q” and «u» matches „u”. the engine reports failure. which cannot match here. «b» matches „b”. Again. not only at the start. The engine cannot step back one character because there are no characters before the “t”. the lookbehind tells the engine to step back one character. so the engine steps back from “i” in the string to “u”. and put a token after it. the engine temporarily steps back one character to check if an “a” can be found there. All remaining attempts will fail as well. More Regex Engine Internals Let's apply «(?<=a)b» to “thingamabob”. the “h”. In this case. using negative lookbehind. Negative lookbehind is written as «(?<!text)». and see if an “a” can be matched there. Let's apply «q(?=u)i» to “quit”. The construct for positive lookbehind is «(?<=text)»: a pair of round brackets. The next character is the first “b” in the string. and finds out that the “m” does not match «a».) Again.71 Because the lookahead is negative. If you want to find a word not ending with an “s”. The engine steps back. To lookahead was successful. Important Notes About Lookbehind The good news is that you can use lookbehind anywhere in the regex. and the entire regex has been matched successfully. Because it is zero-width. Since «q» cannot match anywhere else. This is definitely not the same as . “less than” symbol and an equals sign. Since there are no other permutations of this regex. using an exclamation point instead of an equals sign. but works backwards. The engine starts with the lookbehind and the first character in the string. It tells the regex engine to temporarily step backwards in the string. you could use «\b\w+(?<!s)\b». the current position in the string remains at the “m”. Again. The engine again steps back one character. «(?<!a)b» matches a “b” that is not preceded by an “a”. I have made the lookahead positive. with the opening bracket followed by a question mark. But «i» cannot match “u”. but does not match “bed” or “debt”. The lookbehind continues to fail until the regex reaches the “m” in the string. so the engine continues with «i». Let's take one more look inside. It finds a “t”. It will not match “cab”. but will match the „b” (and only the „b”) in “bed” or “debt”. so the positive lookbehind fails again. The engine steps back and finds out that „a” satisfies the lookbehind. The next character is the second “a” in the string. It matches one character: the first „b” in the string. Positive and Negative Lookbehind Lookbehind has the same effect. The next token is «b». So the lookbehind fails. «(?<=a)b» (positive lookbehind) matches the „b” (and only the „b”) in „cab”. and the engine starts again at the next character. So this match attempt fails. and notices that the „a” can be matched there.

including those used by Perl 5 and Python. many regex flavors. plus alternation with strings of different lengths. Until that happens. plus finite repetition. Personally. inside lookbehind.72 «\b\w+[^s]\b».NET framework.NET framework can apply regular expressions backwards. and will allow you to use any regex. These regex flavors recognize the fact that finite repetition can be rewritten as an alternation of strings with different. Double negations tend to be confusing to humans.4. has a double negation (the \W in the negated character class). The string must be traversed from left to right. the . RegexBuddy. You can use any regex of which the length of the match can be predetermined. The bad news is that you cannot use just any regex inside a lookbehind. alternation and character classes inside lookbehind. When applied to “John's”. Technically. PHP. JavaScript does not support lookbehind at all. Finally. But each string in the alternation must still be of fixed length. I will leave it up to you to figure out why. the former will match „John” and the latter „John'” (including the apostrophe).0 of the . the regular expression engine needs to be able to figure out how many steps to step back before checking the lookbehind. only allow fixed-length strings. This includes PCRE. Microsoft has promised to resolve this in version 2. lookbehind is a valuable addition to the regular expression syntax. However. This means you can still not use the star or plus. (Hint: «\b» matches between the apostrophe and the “s”). and \W in the character class). so only literals and character classes can be used. You cannot use repetition or optional items. Finally. but you can use the question mark and the curly braces with the max parameter specified. which works correctly. Therefore. the semantics of applying a regular expression backwards are currently not well-defined. The reason is that regular expressions do not work backwards. some more advanced flavors support the above. . but fixed lengths. This means you can use literal text and character classes. I recommend you use only fixed-length strings. The correct regex without using lookbehind is «\b\w*[^s\W]\b» (star instead of plus. The only regex flavor that I know of that currently supports this is Sun's regex package in the JDK 1. Not to regex engines. Even with these limitations. but only if all options in the alternation have the same length. The last regex. Some regex flavors support the above. You can use alternation. Therefore. The latter will also not match single-letter words like “a” or “I”. including infinite repetition. though. I find the lookbehind easier to understand. EditPad Pro and PowerGREP.

At this position will the regex engine attempt the remainder of the regex. But this method gets unwieldy if you want to find any word between 6 and 12 letters long containing either “cat”. Because we already know that a 6-letter word can be matched at the current position. To make this clear. then the regex will traverse part of the string twice. the word we found must contain the word “cat”. in the 6letter word. Combining the two. The lookahead is zero-width. if any. So if you have a regex in which a lookahead is followed by another piece of regex. causing the engine to advance character by character until the next 6-letter word. we get: «(?=\b\w{6}\b)\b\w*cat\w*\b». Second. Matching a word containing “cat” is equally easy: «\b\w*cat\w*\b». After that. and therefore the lookahead. First. the current position in the string is still at the beginning of the 6-letter word. reducing the number of characters matched by «\w*». where the lookahead will fail. which I introduced in detail in the previous topic. or a lookbehind is preceded by another piece of regex. the last «\b» in the regex is guaranteed to match where the second «\b» inside the lookahead matched. we basically have two requirements for a successful match. If «cat» can be successfully matched. Actually. If not. matches only when the current character position in the string is at the start of a 6-letter word in the string. We just specify all the options and hump them together using alternation: «cat\w{3}|\wcat\w{2}|\w{2}cat\w|\w{3}cat». . The engine will then backtrack. it is often underused by people new to regular expressions. the second «\w*» will consume the remaining letters. a bit more practical example. and the engine will continue trying the regex from the start at the next character position in the string. Matching a 6-letter word is easy with «\b\w{6}\b». Easy enough. Lookaround to The Rescue In this example. the lookahead will fail. I would like to give you another. Unfortunately. This sub-regex. we want a word that is 6 letters long. is a very powerful concept. The confusing part is that the lookaround is zero-width. we know that «\b» matches and that the first «\w*» will match 6 times.73 16. the engine has no other choice but to restart at the beginning of the regex. This is at the second letter in the 6-letter word we just found. So when the regex inside the lookahead has found the 6-letter word. If «cat» cannot be matched. Our double-requirement-regex has matched successfully. because lookaround is a bit confusing. Easy! Here's how this works. we can match this without lookaround. at the next character position in the string. Let's say we want to find a word that is six letters long and contains the three subsequent letters “cat”. At each character position in the string where the regex is attempted. until «cat» can be matched. Testing The Same Part of The String for More Than One Requirement Lookaround. the engine will first attempt the regex inside the positive lookahead. “dog” or “mouse”.

So we can optimize this to «\w{0. This is not a problem if you are just doing a search in a text editor. But we can optimize the first «\w*». . so it does not contribute to the match returned by the regex engine. we can remove them. it would still cause the regex engine to try matching “cat” at the last two letters. it is not the most optimal solution. up to and including “cat”. there can never be more than 3 letters before “cat”. minor. One last.12}\b)\w{0. The lazy asterisk would find a successful match sooner. “dog” or “mouse”? Again we have two requirements. “dog” or “mouse” into the first backreference. as I did above. This regex will also put “cat”. You can discover these optimizations by yourself if you carefully examine the regex and follow how the regex engine applies it. it will match 6 letters and then backtrack.9}(cat|dog|mouse)\w*». we cannot remove it because it adds characters to the regex match. Since it is zero-width itself. at the last single letter. there's no need to put it inside the lookahead.3}». Remember that the lookahead discards its match. what would you use to find any word between 6 and 12 letters long containing either “cat”. Very easy.3}cat\w*». So we have «(?=\b\w{6}\b)\w{0. leaving: «(?=\b\w{6}\b)\w*cat\w*». Since it is zero-width.74 Optimizing Our Solution While the above regex works just fine. optimization involves the first «\b». once you get the hang of it. I said the third and last «\b» are guaranteed to match. and therefore does not change the result returned by the regex engine. Though the last «\w*» is also guaranteed to match. and even at one character beyond the 6-letter word.3}cat\w*». but if a 6-letter word does not contain “cat”. which we can easily combine using a lookahead: « \b(?=\w{6. As it stands. But we know that in a successful match. A More Complex Problem So. instead of the entire word. But optimizing things is a good idea if this regex will be used repeatedly and/or on large chunks of data in an application you are developing. Note that making the asterisk lazy would not have optimized this sufficiently. So the final regex is: «\b(?=\w{6}\b)\w{0. the resulting match would be the start of a 6-letter word containing “cat”. If we omitted the «\w*».

One example is matching a particular regex only inside specific sections of the string or file searched through. If “wanted” occurs only once inside the section. we need to use «. it will continue after „stop”. Example: Search and Replace within Header Tags Using the above generic regular expression. That is. So we need a way to match „wanted” without matching the rest of the section. Since we do not know in advance how many characters there will be between “start” and “wanted”. In a regex. Because of the negative lookahead inside the star. When we apply the regex again to the same string or file. However. This. This is possible with lookahead. we must be able to match «stop» after matching «wanted». and then we test if it is inside the proper section. Lookbehind must be of fixed length. The final regular expression will be in the form of «wanted(?=insidesection)». you can easily build a regex to do a search and replace on HTML files. How do we know if we matched «wanted» inside a section? First. but only inside title tags. «start» and «stop» with the regexes of your choice. So inside the lookahead we need to look for a series of unspecified characters that do not match the start of a section anywhere in the series. and «stop» as the regex matching the end of the section. not after „wanted”. A title tag starts with «<H[1-6]» and . After this. Finding Matches Only Inside a Section of The String Lookahead allows you to create regular expression patterns that are impossible to create without it. this is written as: «((?!start). we can do without lookahead.)*?stop)». and «start» as the regex matching the start of the section. Second. this will not work if “wanted” occurs more than once inside a single section. this will not work. I used a lazy star to make the regex more efficient. we found a match after a section rather than inside a section.*?)wanted(?=. we need to match the end of the section. we repeat zero or more times with the star. However. So we have to resort to using lookahead only. I will use «wanted» as a substitute for the regular expression that we are trying to match inside the section. the lazy star will continue to repeat until the end of the section is reached. The final regular expression becomes: «wanted(?=((?!start). First we match the string we want. The entire section is included in the regex match. If we could. replacing a certain word with another. You may be tempted to use a combination of lookbehind and lookahead like in «(?<=start.*?». the star will also stop at the start of a section. we found a match before a section rather than inside a section. The regex engine will refuse to compile this regular expression. Note that these two rules will only yield success if the string or file searched through is properly translated into sections. The reason is that this regular expression consumes the entire section. The dot and negative lookahead match any character that is not the first character of the start of a section. and end with the section stop. at which point stop cannot be matched and thus the regex will fail. because lookahead is zero-width. each match of «start» must be followed exactly by one match of «stop».*?stop» would do the trick.)*?stop». Effectively. we must not be able to match «start» between matching «wanted» and matching «stop».75 17.*?wanted.*?stop)». The star is obviously not of fixed length. «start. To keep things simple. If not. Substitute «wanted».

I omitted the closing > in the start tag to allow for attributes. But lookahead is what we need here. .76 ends with «</H[1-6]>».)*?</H[1-6]>)». or negative lookbehind. Escaping the < takes care of the problem. So the regex becomes «wanted(?=((?!\<H[1-6]). You may have noticed that I escaped the < of the opening tag in the final regex. I did that because some regex flavors interpret «(?!<» as identical to «(?<!».

EditPad Pro will select the match. and move the text cursor to the end of the match. the position where the last match ended is a “magical” value that is remembered separately for each string variable. rather than at the end of the previous match result.. and the regexes inside the loop check which tag we found... \G Magic with Perl In Perl. If a match attempt fails. The result is that «\G» matches at the end of the previous match result only when you do not move the text cursor between two searches. The regex in the while loop searches for the tag's opening bracket. Applying «\G\w» to the string “test string” matches „t”. Applying it again matches „e”. where «\G» matches at the position of the text cursor. «\G» matches at the start of the string in the way «\A» does. you could parse an HTML file in the following fashion: while ($string =~ m/</g) { if ($string =~ m/\GB>/c) { } elsif ($string =~ m/\GI>/c) { } else { } } # Bold # Italics # . The fifth attempt fails. To avoid this. this makes a lot of sense in the context of a text editor. This way you can parse the tags in the file in the order they appear in the file. All this is very useful to make several regular expressions work together.. End of The Previous Match vs Start of The Match Attempt With some regex flavors or tools. «\G» matches at the start of the match attempt. During the first match attempt. specify the continuation modifier /c.g. so the match fails.77 18.etc. the only place in the string where «\G» matches is after the second t. Continuing at The End of The Previous Match The anchor «\G» matches at the position where the previous match ended. This means that you can use «\G» to make a regex continue in a subject string where another regex left off. This is the case with EditPad Pro. The 3rd attempt yields „s” and the 4th attempt matches the second „t” in the string. All in all. When a match is found. During the fifth attempt. the stored position for «\G» is reset to the start of the string. without having to write a single big regex that matches all tags you are interested in. But that position is not followed by a word character. E. . The position is not associated with any regular expression. rather than the end of the previous match.

in Java.78 \G in Other Programming Langauges This flexibility is not available with most other programming languages. .g. the position for «\G» is remembered by the Matcher object. The Matcher is strictly associated with a single regular expression and a single subject string. «\G» will then match at this position. E. What you can do though is to add a line of code to make the match attempt of the second Matcher start where the match of the first Matcher ended.

Remember that the lookaround constructs do not consume any characters. If-Then-Else Conditionals in Regular Expressions A special construct «(?ifthen|else)» allows you to create conditional regular expressions. then the regex engine will attempt to match the then part. If the if part evaluates to true. Using positive lookahead. Otherwise. Otherwise. . immediately followed by the if part. you can use the lookahead and lookbehind constructs.79 19. the syntax becomes «(?(?=regex)then|else)». the else part is attempted instead. like in «(?(?=condition)(then1|then2|then3)|(else1|else2|else3))». You may omit the else part. Because the lookahead has its own parentheses. the if and then parts are clearly separated. The syntax consists of a pair of round brackets. you will have to group the then or else together using parentheses. For the then and else. you can use any regular expression. For the if part. The opening bracket must be followed by a question mark. This part can be followed by a vertical bar and the else part. immediately followed by the then part. there is no need to use parentheses around the then and else parts. and the vertical bar with it. If you use a lookahead as the if part. then the regex engine will attempt to match the then or else part (depending on the outcome of the lookahead) at the same position where the if was attempted. If you want to use alternation.

I guess you will agree that regular expressions can quickly become rather cryptic. Therefore. Some software. That makes the comments really stand out. Adding Comments to Regular Expressions If you have worked through the entire tutorial. E./. . as long as it does not contain a closing round bracket.](?#day)(0[1-9]|[12][0-9]|3[01])».](?#month)(0[1-9]|1[012])[. The syntax is «(?#comment)» where “comment” is be whatever you want. EditPad Pro and PowerGREP can apply syntax coloring to regular expressions while you write them. many modern regex flavors allow you to insert comments into regexes. enabling the right comment in the right spot to make a complex regular expression much easier to understand. I could clarify the regex to match a valid date by writing it as «(?#year)(19|20)\d\d[/.g. The regex engine ignores everything after the «(?#» until the first closing round bracket. Now it is instantly obvious that this regex matches a date in yyyy-mm-dd format. such as RegexBuddy.80 20.

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